Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Decade in Music 2000-2009, #80-61

For the record, the word document I'm working with is 35 pages long. I probably should've broken it up by now, but honestly, it was easier to have everything ranked together when I was working on my drafts. The order changed drastically, although the number one slot was surprisingly clear, as only two albums battled for the spot during the five months in which I worked on this project. Much more difficult to arrange were the albums I loved but didn't necessarily swear a blood oath on. Discount's Crash Diagnostic, Sunny Day Real Estate's The Rising Tide, and Smashing Pumpkins' MACHINA are all underrated albums from seminal '90s bands, and I really, really love them. But I also thought of 100 albums I love even more. This forced me to make some pretty harsh decisions, and while I'm sure sooner or later someone is going to berate me for my order [SPOILER ALERT: Only one Bear vs. Shark album made the cut. WHICH ONE IS IT?!], I stand by the 100 albums I chose, in the order I chose them. Whatevs forevs.

The Top 100 Albums of My Disposable Income Years, #80-61

80. Our Lady Peace - Spiritual Machines (2000)

Our Lady Peace hit their creative peak in 2000 with Spiritual Machines, a concept album made with, and in reaction to, Raymond Kurzweil and his book The Age of Spiritual Machines. The last album to feature original guitarist Mike Turner, the band entered a spacier (there’s that word again…) level to accommodate the record’s futuristic, science fiction-oriented nature. The album is perhaps best known for the life-affirming anthem, “Life,” one of the first songs I ever learned how to play on drums. But it’s the more paranoid, Orwellian alt-rock jams that stick with me, tracks like album opener “Right Behind You (Mafia)” and “Everyone’s a Junkie.” The album still holds up for me, eight years later, combining my love of rock and/or roll with my love for robots.

79. Cursive - The Ugly Organ (2003)

Cursive mastermind Tim Kasher has turned out some fantastic indie/emo records over the years – The Storms of Early Summer, Domestica, Happy Hollow. His best is The Ugly Organ. Kasher approaches each album as a singular concept; this one was about cellos. It’s also a concept album about “The Ugly Organist” and his empty sexcipades or whatever. But mostly it’s about punk songs played with cellos, and it’s awesome. Starting with “Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand,” the record fires off one furious missive after another. It opens with lines like “Our Father who art in heaven / Save me from the wreck I’m about to drown in” and closes with “Doo-doot doo-doot doo-doot doo-doo / The worst is over.” So… that’s redemptive.

78. Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country (2006)

A Scottish indie pop band that’s been kicking out the (soft, orchestral) jams since 1996, Camera Obscura has drawn a heck of a lot of comparisons to other pop classicists like Belle and Sebastian or even The Smiths. But on Let’s Get Out of This Country, Camera Obscura sound only like themselves, having turned out 10 delicious pop tracks in under 40 minutes. The album is almost evenly divided between peppy ditties and slower, more intimate numbers. But regardless of the tempo, Camera Obscura delivered a great record. Lyricist Traceyanne Campbelle is a stellar composer, jotting down and singing out songs that are compactly catchy yet still deeply moving, not unlike The Beatles’ back catalog.

77. PJ Harvey - White Chalk (2007)

Having temporarily exhausted her guitar, Harvey rebooted her songwriting by switching to a new instrument - piano, resulting in this minimalist, unforgettable gem. Harvey’s overall strength as a songwriter has always been her erratically explorative nature. She’s a wicked guitarist and a gripping lyricist, and her vocals range from rocking to haunting to soulful, but her one general constant has been an unwillingness to rehash her past work. Uh Huh Her, Harvey’s lone attempt to rekindle the guitar squall of older records Dry and Rid of Me in 2004, came across like a midlife crisis. It felt as if Harvey had done all she could do with her guitar, but retained the compulsion to write.

For the most part, White Chalk is a quiet success in the vein of Emily Haines, Nick Drake and The Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely. Harvey’s restraint cracks here and there on tracks like “Silence" and "The Piano,” but it completely explodes on closing number “The Mountain,” when she finally lets loose a ghastly wail that rings like a death cry. But whether she’s quiet or loud, Harvey is still exploring new avenues as a songwriter, creating a catalogue of songs that are connected by degrees but stand by their loathsome selves as well.

76. Against Me! - New Wave (2007)

There was a ton of hullabaloo about Against Me!’s major label debut. Sire, home to such not very punk acts as The Ramones, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and The Replacements, may have coughed up the corporate cash to pay for New Wave, but I don’t care. The intolerant punk stream pushed Tom Gabel out and he pushed back by making his band bigger and broader. I hope every close-minded crusty-ass motherfucker hears these tracks and realizes that their former favorite punk band isn't writing punk songs anymore and couldn't care less about it. The jammy tides of “Ocean,” the dramatic balladry of “Bourne on the FM Waves of the Heart,” the slow burn of “Thrash Unreal.” They’re all awesome.

75. Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords (2008)

For a joke band, Flight of the Conchords sure do write awfully great songs. Their self-titled U.S. debut boasts a variety of styles, from French discothèque pop on “Foux Du Fafa” to socially conscious Marvin Gaye-style R&B on “Think About It.” The music is smooth and catchy, expertly crafted so as to elevate it above novelty. The band has complained in the past that fans have started singing along instead of laughing at these joke-songs live, but the duo has only itself to blame for cranking out such infectious numbers. I mean, have you heard “Bowie?” It covers spacey hippie Bowie, glam rock Bowie and Let’s Dance Bowie perfectly. It has lines like “How far out are you, man?” “I’m pretty far out.” “That’s pretty far out, man!” So good.

74. Nada Surf - Let Go (2002)

Nada Surf had a ’90s alt-rock hit (“Popular”) indebted to the Weezer/Pixies camp, and while its accompanying record (High/Low) is pretty great, the band truly hit its stride in 2002 on the indie rock-leaning Let Go. Essentially setting the standard for the rest of the band’s run this decade, Let Go features delicate, occasionally rocking, folky pop gems about being awkward and really into music. I can’t think of a better way for explaining Let Go than this: Last winter, I put it on for the first time in a while, and was blown away by how many of my favorite Nada Surf songs were on this record. I mean, I knew those songs, but in the iPod era, I sometimes forget what goes where. The record knocks out acoustic beauty “Blizzard of ’77” and the more charged “Happy Kid” right away before “Inside of Love” chills things out. “Blonde on Blonde” goes even mellower, discussing the wonders of Bob Dylan over gentle guitar rhythms. Then “Hi-Speed Soul” completely reverses that trend with one of the rockinest tunes the band ever wrote, and that’s including their alternative years, as does “The Way You Wear Your Head.” The haunting “Treading Water” is the real closer; “Paper Boats” is the afterglow.

73. Alkaline Trio - Maybe I'll Catch Fire (2000)

My friend Eric forced me to buy this album, because some things are so important that there’s no time to explain. It was a total “Come with me if you want to live” moment. Fast-forward a few days, and I’m rewinding opening number “Keep ’Em Coming” over and over. I’d known a few Alk3 tunes prior to this moment thanks to compilations, but nothing as catchy and kickass. I’m still a little surprised I ever made it to track two, “Madam Me.” I’m glad I did, though, so I can enjoy such Chicago punk pseudo-goth tunes as “Fuck You Aurora,” “Maybe I’ll Catch Fire,” and “Radio” It’s angry, it’s self-pitying, and it’s drunken. Sounds fun.

72. Rx Bandits - The Resignation (2003)

In hindsight, Rx Bandits were a ska band for like five minutes. Even though that shock has worn off seven years later, opening track “Sell You Beautiful” is still a pretty abrasive screed against plastic surgery and vacuous celebrity. If anything, its more relevant now thanks to the propagation of shitty reality television. Same goes for anti-war anthem “Newstand Rock (Exposition),” which still hits hard thanks to America’s continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Actually, I just bummed myself out. My personal life is completely different, but little has changed on a national and international level since The Resignation came out. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

71. Desaparecidos - Read Music/Speak Spanish (2002)

If I’d made this series five years ago, I guarantee there would be been way more Conor Oberst entries. At the advanced age of 24, though, I rarely find myself with the exact levels of angst needed to savor Bright Eyes. But I can still hold on to the punk fervor of Oberst’s side project, Desaparecidos. The band recorded one LP, but it’s so good that in a way I’m glad they never got the chance to foul up their legacy. Read Music, Speak Spanish deals with lady troubles like Bright Eyes, but through a socio-eco-politi-crazy perspective. This is a “burn it all down” record that’s much more eloquent than the phrase “burn it all down.”

70. Cat Power - You Are Free (2003)

On You Are Free, Chan Marshall started to break free from her folk-y, Southern Gothic sound in favor of something a lil more twang-y and soulful. Cat Power is probably one of my favorite vocalists of all time; her voice is smooth like gin, capable of sounding mournful and celebratory at the same time. She’s like the Irish wake of singers. Things would get even mellower on her follow-up, The Greatest, but You Are Free catches Marshall at a good crossroads – hints of the her old indie folk style on “Free” mix freely with her sexy new minimalism on “I Don’t Blame You.”

69. Mirah - You Think It's Like This But Really It's Like This (2000)

Madonna has always had a cold, selfish, over-thought approach to sex in her songwriting (something apparently mirrored by her real life…); I prefer the warm, giving, playful nature of Mirah’s sexuality as expressed through her songwriting. On her debut full-length, Mirah delivered the cutest song about S & M (“Murphy Bed”), the cutest song about wanting to eff someone from long distance (“Million Miles”), and the cutest song about afternoon shags (“Pollen”) of all time. Mirah dresses her songs up in neat lil folky pop ensembles, and the raw sexual energy is further underscored by her strident leftist politics. Who knew a protest singer could be so… fun and well-rounded?

68. At the Drive-In - Relationship of Command (2000)

Funny story: The Wall (remember them?) had two albums on sale for $9.99: At the Drive-In’s The Relationship of Command and Sum-41’s All Killer No Filler. “One Armed Scissor” and “Fat Lip” had been bouncing around inside my head for weeks. I had enough cash to buy one of them, a decision that I now realize would radically alter my life’s course.

I picked All Killer No Filler.

And while I unapologetically loved the eff out of Sum-41 in high school, At the Drive-In is the band I listen to much more frequently now. Taking Fugazi’s angular post-hardcore sound to a much more surreal, demonic place, ATDI were heralds for the kind of music I wouldn’t truly love until years later. You wanna talk gateway drugs? Howsabout the crazed performance video for “One Armed Scissor?” Or the feminist defense of the video for “Invalid Litter Dept.,” which protests the Juárez murders? Or how about that time they got motherfucking Iggy Pop to motherfucking duet with them on motherfucking “Rolodex Propaganda?” One of my biggest regrets is that I did not buy this album until after the band split into The Mars Volta and Sparta.

67. Thursday - War All the Time (2003)

While I’m sure a lot of people would disagree, I feel that post-hardcore act Thursday didn’t hit their stride until War All the Time, their major label debut, oddly enough. Y100 included an acoustic version of “Signals Over the Air” on Sonic Sessions Volume 8, and while I had written off the band after Full Collapse as just another screamo act, the song slowly worked its way into my brain. Eventually, I cracked, bought War All the Time, and was promptly blown the heck away by its passion, energy, and subject matter. Every so often, a writer will bring how emo used to be more than just songs about girls. It was still personal, but that meant being political just as much as being romantic. Thursday is one of the few bands today who combines those elements, discussing “the scene,” Iraq, and friendships in long breaths. It’s all there in the title track, mixing personal tragedies with “bigger” horrors than Hiroshima and 9/11.

66. Cat Power - The Greatest (2006)

The Greatest launched Chan Marshall into uber-sexy, soulful territory. “Lived in Bars” would be a sultry way to close any pub. The title track is the most gorgeous ballad to come out this year. It also seems to have marked her last great stand. Covers record Jukebox lacked oomph, her live shows have been canceled with distressing frequency, and her interviews make her come off as somewhat cracked out. But for a little while, she was my go-to gal all things folksy, smoky, and wise.

65. The Go! Team - Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2005)

While it was originally released in the UK in 2004, The Go! Team’s debut record Thunder, Lightning, Strike made it onto my 2005 list because A) that’s when it was released in the states/I’m a good American and B) the track listing got even better. The record was already a charming amalgamation of bubblegum pop, early hip-hop, techno, indie rock, schoolyard chants and harmonicas in ’04, but the addition of “Hold Yr Terror Close” and “We Just Won’t Be Defeated” was a nice touch. The whole dang album is an infectious party stomper, but it’s the final three tracks that flow best: “Hold Yr Terror Close” is a pretty lil piano number that’s stripped down and mellow compared to the rest of the album, which makes the shift back to high gear via “Huddle Formation” that much better.

Arguably the best track on the album, “Huddle Formation” is also the most joyous song on this whole dang list. I almost wish I could make out what the words were, but the record’s lo-fi fuzz suits the endearingly rickety music. And then there’s the banjo-lovin’ “Everyone’s a V.I.P. to Someone,” a thoroughly romantic ditty despite having no words whatsoever. I listened to this album for the first time in a while about a month or two ago, and the angelic exaltation I used to feel from Thunder, Lightning, Strike washed over me anew.

64. Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)

Man, remember when The Arcade Fire was totally underrated? This one might actually be the first album introduced to me by the Collegian staff. Maureen “Mo” McElaney wrote a great article about the album’s lush orchestration, haunting vocals, and raw passion. Imbued with a “eh, why the fuck not?” spirit, I picked up the album afterwards and promptly filled with a new kind of angst, both highly dramatic yet ever so refined. Funeral’s title came about after several band members’ lost family members during the recording period, and the album desperately attempts to finds solace after these events. Still reeling ever so slightly from Mom-Mom’s death, I found this outlet very uplifting.

Arcade Fire’s orchestral indie rock sound has been somewhat diluted by the surge of other Quebec bands, but Funeral remains a thrilling original. The energy coursing through songs like “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies”) come with the same Big Statements™ that I get from early U2. The Arcade Fire’s follow-up, Neon Bible, let me down a little bit, but following this analogy, that would make it their October, an overeager attempt to make too many grand gestures at once. Which means that up next is their War

63. Big D and The Kids Table - How It Goes (2004)

How It Goes marks the moment Big D and The Kids Table went from pretty good to frickin’ amazing. Here is where the band got the recording budget to capture their music, not to mention some incredible hooks to commit to tape. Not just another post-Less Than Jake ska-punk band, How It Goes marks the D’s transition into an overall ragga-awareness. Reggae and 2-tone mix freely, although the record still skews towards the punk end of the spectrum. The topics stay the same – chicks, work, d-bags, and poverty suck while drinking is fun – but songwriting carries those ideas much farther. The standout is “LAX,” an angry diatribe against the sort of dumbfucks now highlight on The Hills, over-coddled, under-educated rich bastards that specialize in inane, petty pursuits. Juxtaposed against the band’s own low-income lifestyle, “LAX” becomes a searing class war song on par with anything The Clash (or Crass… or The Sex Pistols… or…) ever wrote.

Boasting 76 minutes o’ music, How It Goes is stuffed to the rafters with tunes. From the breezy opener “The Sounds of Allston Village” to the pounding, endearing entreaty of ender “Moment Without an End,” it’s a heck of a party. Politically minded song “President” aside, it’s a goofy, fun time with songs like “Girls Against Drunk Bitches” (it’s about cat fights!), “175” (it’s about ultimate disc!), and “Little Bitch” (it’s a kickass Specials cover!). The D bleeds great songs on their albums and, Rancid-like, they delivered 20 solid ones with How It Goes.

62. Modest Mouse - The Moon & Antarctica (2000)

I was at a party in high school when Bill Benz and Eric Geiger started playing “3rd Planet,” on an acoustic guitar, off to the side. Some people remember their first LSD experience; they remember colors and emotions and connections. Well, that’s how I feel about “3rd Planet.” At first I thought maybe Geiger had written it, on account of him being a phenomenal lyricist (Favorite Geiger lyric, from “Moonbounce Collapse:” “Hop upon my moonbounce / There’s just me and then there’s you, bounce!”). After they blew my brain all over the commonwealth, the boys explained it was actually a Modest Mouse song.

I went out and bought The Moon & Antarctica not long after that. The album is much spacier than anything Modest Mouse did before or after, making it kind of an anomaly in the band’s discography. I was stoked to hear the original version of “3rd Planet” when I popped the disc in, and relieved to hear the brilliance of each successive track. “Gravity Rides Everything” continues the expansive pop feel before “Dark Center of the Universe” heads into acid rock. Some days, this is my favorite Modest Mouse record.

61. Paint It Black - New Lexicon (2008)

Where CVA was a quick and hook-filled hardcore jam – thanks to co-vocalist and Loved Ones frontman Dave Hause – and Paradise snapped ligaments like Slim Jims, New Lexicon aims for a more atmospheric vibe. That doesn’t mean the disc grinds less – it’s still a stool-kicker. However, the band tempers down the blistering bits with instrumental compositions by co-producer Oktopus from alt-rap group Dälek. For the most part, it works. Unlike, say, The Mars Volta circa Frances the Mute, Oktopus’ ambient pieces never overwhelm the rock. Rather, they enhance it by adding a basis for comparison. Punk and hip-hop were born in the same urban settings; it’s nice to hear a band try to glean something new from the two.

TOMORROW: Something is squeezing my skull, I'm strictly rude, Old world underground, where are you now? #60-41.


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